Collective Actualization and Wicked Problems

Published by Boardroom Labs on

Collective Actualization and Wicked Problems

What if you could live 100 times? What if your society could? What might the best version look like?

In its lifetime of 6-20 weeks, a worker bee will produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. Alone, that may seem insignificant. But together, worker bees allow future generations to thrive once they’re gone. We are all future ancestors to those who haven’t yet been born. This perspective, of responsibility to the future and those who will inhabit it, has been growing. In 2016, Wales appointed a Future Generations Commissioner. But it’s not new. The ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) believed in the Seventh Generation Principle (i.e., that decisions made today should result in a sustainable world for seven generations into the future or 100+ years).

In his two major works Motivation and Personality (1954) and Toward a Psychology of Being (1962) Abraham Maslow outlined a hierarchy of human needs, which peaked with self-actualization. Self-actualization is the realization of one’s innate purpose and talents. It’s not a given that we self-actualize. Maslow estimated >1% of us do.

It takes a village

Imagine you could live 100 lives. Each with a distinct identity, journey, community, etc. Maybe in some, you’re a devoted parent, in others an acclaimed author. Let’s name some of them: explorer, adventurer, and engineer. In many of these lives, things wouldn’t go well. Perhaps you’d get sick, suffer an accident, or just go through the motions. Across these lives, there is some unifying element to yourself you’re striving to become. Yet, because of chance, circumstance, and people’s actions you usually fall short.

Core to futures design is that the future is collective. We build it together and our individual outcomes rely on our collective actions. However, it’s deeper than that. Much like your 100 lives, let’s run the same thought experiment with human civilization. From today’s date, we simulate the future 100 times. In some, civilization will collapse. As Jared Diamond demonstrates in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed it happens. In others, we fall short in key areas. We backslide into authoritarianism and allow technology to compromise human autonomy and wellness or fail to respond adequately to climate change. In some few futures, we enjoy collective justice democracy, progress, and prosperity. We collectively actualize.

We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined. —Marshall Berman

A ruin is the remains of a civilization that collapsed. Every continent is covered in ruins. They remind of us the breathtaking ability of humanity to build and thrive in often harsh, inhospitable environments. We can be ingenious and wise, but also short-sighted and cruel. However, unlike ruins, the future is not set in stone. Our everyday actions dictate what future we experience. We can vote, advocate, volunteer, build, spend, work, and teach. We’re all futures designers and the future is ours to decide.

Let’s imagine a few distant futures:

  • Worker’s Economy: Automation-driven productivity funds 25-hour workweeks, flexible work environments, and needs-based conditional incomes. Fueled by an economy built on security, purpose, and freedom, people boldly tackle a fast-evolving future’s many opportunities.
  • The Multiverse: Emerging technologies, like AR/VR, neural technologies, AI, and human engineering have created a multiverse, where the physical-and-digital realms merge. People can freely embody different personas tailored to different communities or feelings. They can be who they truly wish to be, free of any physical or social limits.
  • Invincible: People are vibrant, ageless, and in control. Governments, companies, and individuals share data and manage physical, mental, and spiritual health interventions that maximize society’s quality of life.
  • Philanthrocapitalism: Climate change has devastated the global economy. People feel insecure, powerless, and anxious. Declining social support systems and democratic power has left workers fighting for what little remains.

These worlds are not mutually exclusive, nor are they necessarily positive or negative. Much like our personal 100 lives, each is a possibility that contains seeds of a collective utopia. Inherently to be a futures designer, you must believe in iterating to utopia. That each decision and action can gradually bring us all towards a brighter collective state (or can shift us towards dystopia).

Future Focus Areas

People experience pockets of dystopia and systems breakdown every day, including refugees trapped between indifferent bureaucracies or oppressed citizens struggling in failed states. Iterating to utopia isn’t just possible but necessary. In 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the concept of Wicked Problems. Wicked problems are messy, complex, vast, impactful. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals offer what’s likely the best summary of the wicked problems society faces today, including poverty, education, equality, sustainability, and economic growth.

I’ll offer a simpler take, that I believe summarizes the wicked problem areas of today and tomorrow:

  • Justice: Ensuring equality, respect, and expression for all life on Earth.
  • Democracy: Ensuring the fair, egalitarian distribution of power in society.
  • Progress: Ensuring the continued development of human civilization, without ecological or technological collapse.
  • Prosperity: Ensuring people’s wellbeing, security, and autonomy.

Universal access to clean water, sanitation, and food. Education and equality for all. Many solvable problems are challenging and cause great suffering. However, they are vast, global issues. I believe there are six focus areas or industries we should be making future-forward today to collectively address wicked problems:

  • Banking & Finance: Money is a catalyst for people to achieve their goals. Financial institutions are partners throughout their client’s life journeys, and when done right, empower them to lead more fulfilling, secure lives.
  • Energy, Mobility, Infrastructure, & Aerospace: Cheaper, faster transportation lubricates industry and prosperity. Lowered launch costs will spur innovations on and outside Earth, while our cities evolve in how we move, produce, consume, and salvage.
  • Consumer Goods, Entertainment, & Retail: Consumer goods and retail are how the boons of industrialization support higher living standards and where key innovations become diffused into value propositions for everyday people.
  • AI, Robotics, Computing, & The Internet: Like the first central nervous system, a web of connected, intelligent machines, persistent virtual and augmented realities, powerful quantum computers and new use cases, like workforce automation, are on the horizon.
  • Food, Health, & Biotechnology: The collision of the 100-year life, wealth distribution, and emerging life extension, genetic and nanotechnologies stand poised to reinvent work, life and play and enable more meaningful, purposeful lives.
  • Government & NGOs: Fuelled by systemic injustice, precarious living, climate collapse, and grassroots activism, people are looking to governmental organizations to curb corporate excesses and provide a fair, just, democratic global future.

Leading the Future

Not all change is equal. It’s important to distinguish what we design when we design the future. At Boardroom Labs, we believe there are three levels of changemaking that can help us define how ambitious we are when designing the future:

  • Products: Discrete value propositions that solve defined problems and come in various forms (e.g., artifacts, services)
  • Companies: New or modified bounded social systems that share a joint aim (e.g., startups, not-for-profit, corporate entity).
  • Movements: Broad, egalitarian, often leaderless societal shifts with many drivers and participants.

Next time you’re designing the future, ask yourself: am I designing towards a discrete solution, a new (or modified) social system, or a societal shift? As an example, let’s explore Boardroom Labs’ portfolio startup Campfire. As a product, Campfire is a guided journalling iOS application that helps people to discover, plan, and build their desired future. As a company, Campfire will have a team and organizational architecture dedicated to its mission. Finally, as a movement, Campfire will be one of many institutions and individuals promoting self-understanding and purposeful living. Many designs will have elements of all three at once. But sometimes it’s just moving a garbage can that’s in the way.

This is the second article in the Lead The Future series, which will continue exploring the design of products, companies, and movements that shape a better world. Check out the first article An Intro to Futures Design or second We’re All Futures Designers. Would you like to be notified when the next article’s launched? Subscribe to the Boardroom Labs’ newsletter in the sidebar.